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When I began my PhD I was excited to start going to conferences and even more excited to give a paper at my first conference. I eased myself in gently with a couple of small postgraduate conferences, giving papers on material I was very familiar with, before moving on to some of the big society conferences. I found myself leaving a fair few conferences feeling quite disappointed. Some were dreadful, some were just ok, all were exhausting. So it was with great trepidation that I set off to an Inter-Disciplinary.net conference entitled “Trauma: Theory and Practice” in Lisbon at the end of March. I was not disappointed and I want to highlight three ways in which this conference rose above the rest.
I should confess to a certain nostalgia associated with this conference. Nine years ago, a little apprehensively and with (apparently) slightly rushed delivery, I gave my first academic paper at the Joint Postgraduate Conference, held on that occasion at the leafy campus of Bath Spa University.
So it was with great pleasure that on Friday I travelled up a rainy M5 to the ‘Twentieth Joint Postgraduate Religion and Theology Conference’ at the University of Bristol. These days it’s a sizable affair, with over forty papers spread over two days. And although there’s the expected bias towards contributors from institutions in the South West it’s noticeable that the event’s reach has spread, with presenters coming from London, Cambridge, Glasgow, even Rotterdam and Genoa.
PhD students Bethany Wagstaff, Rebekah Welton, and Helen John each delivered papers at this year’s conference.
The IARG is newly-minted, but there have been a series of smaller meetings leading up to this conference over the last couple of years. They’ve taken place at SOAS in London; in Oslo; in New York; in Turku, Finland; in Ghent, Belgium; and in Utrecht. Continue reading →
I came into my PhD study as a qualified secondary school teacher with a good few years’ experience of teaching Religious Studies, Philosophy, and Ethics to children of varying levels of inclination and ability. In some ways this has been both a blessing and curse when it came to teaching in Higher Education. A blessing in that I knew how to manage a small group of students and I knew that I could teach. I will never forget the fear I faced the very first time I stood in front of a group of year 9s to teach ten minutes on the Holocaust with no idea whether what would come out of my mouth would be any good or not!
But it hasn’t necessarily been an easy transition. Teaching small groups of students for just a few weeks at a time is hard. Learning names is difficult in a short space of time and the kind of control I had in a secondary school classroom would be inappropriate in the university setting. Post-graduate teaching itself is not without its problem. Students are paying a considerable sum of money for their degree experience – can we justify allowing post-grads to teach when students are paying for ‘professionals’? Post-graduate students are often not unionised and without representation in larger discussions of teaching in the University. These bigger questions remain part of the reconstruction of the University in the 21st century.
I have to conclude, though, that teaching alongside studying for a PhD is an invaluable experience and one I would recommend for all PhD students.
A conference at the University of Exeter, held under the aegis of the South West Late Antiquity Network.
Sarcophagus of Junius Bassus. Picture by Giovanni Dall’Orto
The topic of religious identity in late antiquity is highly contentious, with significant debate revolving around the reasons for shifts in self-identifications, the degree to which any labels (ancient or modern) for religious categories reflect a real sense of unified social identity, and the malleability and potential overlapping of religious identities. Although most scholars agree that identities were constructed and expressed through forms of ‘rhetoric’, a systematic study of rhetoric’s meaning and influence in this context is still required.
Bible films are currently undergoing an intriguing renaissance. 2014 saw two big-budget representations of the Hebrew Bible in the form of Noah and Exodus:Gods and Kings, and more cinematic treatments of biblical material are on their way: Mary and Last Days in the Desert in 2015, and Redemption of Cain, Ridley Scott’s follow-up David and a host of Jesus films all currently in development. In one sense the Bible’s representation in film had never really disappeared, with biblical allusions and archetypes scattered across 21st century cinema. However, Noah, and more recently, Exodus: Gods and Kings are of a different order, using A-list Hollywood stars to directly depict Bible stories for a contemporary multiplex audience. They are also contentious films, both facing controversies surrounding the ethnicity of their cast and religious communities uncertain at the prospect of their sacred texts being appropriated by secular filmmakers.
In our department, we have a couple of projects that relate to the study of Aramaic incantation bowls, including the recently launched Virtual Magic Bowl Archive.
At first sight, these dusty little pots may seem of marginal interest at best, particularly for theologians and Bible scholars, but it turns out that they are a really big deal. For a start, they are the best epigraphic source we have for studying the everyday beliefs and practices of the various Christian, Jewish, Gnostic, Pagan and Zoroastrian communities of the near east in Late Antiquity and in the early days of Islam. While manuscript sources have been copied and subjected to repeated editorial activity over the centuries, often in order to present official histories, these humble vessels come straight from Late Antiquity and show us what we were never meant to see.
I prefer my coincidences less gruesome. On Wednesday morning a group of my undergraduate students handed in essays focused on blasphemy, freedom of expression and social cohesion. Approximately one hour after the deadline, gunmen shot twelve people at the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris, the reason widely held to be the magazine’s dissemination of cartoons depicting Muhammad. As I write this, media outlets across Europe are now exploring the same core issues that my students grappled with. Every lecturer likes to feel that their subject area has contemporary relevance, but the extremity and violence of recent events renders such sentiment profoundly uncomfortable.
Some commentators have stressed that the Charlie Hebdo shootings should be viewed as unprecedented. Amidst the outpourings of reflection and emotion that have followed the event, I imagine a few of my students might wish they could re-edit their essays in light of what has happened. But I suggest here that immediate re-evaluation is troublesome. The fixed points and ambiguities are essentially no different now than they were prior to Wednesday morning’s violent acts. Murder was wrong then and it is now. The ethics of offence were complex and debatable before and they are complex and debatable now.
L-R: Bethany Wagstaff, Mitchell Travis, Susannah Cornwall, Andrew Worthley, Christina Beardsley, Stephen Whittle
On 30th-31st October, the inaugural meeting of the Variant Sex and Gender, Religion and Faith research network took place at the University of Exeter. A small core group of scholars will be meeting together several times over the next year to discuss themes including:
How are variant sex and gender understood and responded to in the Christian, Jewish and Islamic traditions?
How can the work of academics researching variant sex and gender in Christianity, Islam and Judaism be informed by, and be made more accessible to, faith communities and intersex and transgender support and advocacy groups?
How do support and advocacy groups for intersex and transgender people promote spiritual as well as physical, psychological and emotional wellbeing for their members?
What are the implications of the law on transgender and intersex for faith groups in Britain?
Just over a year ago, I set off with my backpack to a village in the Ondonga region of Northern Namibia, not far from the Angolan border. My research centres on investigating the identities and belief systems of a village community in that area, to be researched through a programme of contextual Bible studies. In other words, I aimed to facilitate groups in the community to discuss their interpretations of a series of New Testament texts. This was with a view to understanding how the influences of both traditional culture and worldviews, and Christianity inform the community members’ understandings of the text and their wider identities and beliefs.